In 2007, Israel strengthened its occupation of Palestine by placing the Gaza Strip under a siege, restricting the movement of people and goods in and out of the enclave.
By denying the population in Gaza direct access to the world by sea or air, the only two entry and exit points remaining for Palestinians are the Erez crossing into Israel, and the Rafah crossing into Egypt. However, Israel only allows passage through Erez for "exceptional humanitarian cases, with an emphasis on urgent medical cases." And while Israel does allow for some Israeli-made goods to enter Gaza through the Karem Abu Salem crossing, this trade forces the captive population in Gaza to finance its occupiers. Otherwise, the lives of more than 1.6 million people are almost completely dependent upon the accessibility of Rafah, focusing all eyes upon the Egyptian border crossing at the expense of obscuring the occupation of Palestine.
Israel's blockade is clearly against international law because under the Fourth Geneva Convention any occupying power is required to protect civilians under its control, whereas under the siege Palestinians are being denied "adequate amounts of the most basic food and medical supplies, not to mention a host of other supplies necessary for rebuilding" the infrastructure that Israel targeted and destroyed in 2009 and 2012, according to the Institute for Middle East Understanding.
A June 2012 report on the blockade's social and economic impacts by the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs found the following: 34 per cent of Gaza's workforce, including over half its youth, is unemployed; 44 per cent of Palestinians in Gaza are food insecure; about 80 per cent of Palestinians in Gaza are aid recipients; GDP per capita decreased around 17 per cent between 2005 and 2011; severe fuel and electricity shortages result in regular outages of up to 12 hours a day; 85 per cent of schools in Gaza have to run on double shifts to meet the population's educational needs; and in 2011 exports averaged around seven per cent of what they were in 2005. The report concludes that the blockade "is a denial of basic human rights in contravention of international law and amounts to collective punishment." Some UN officials have also called Gaza an open-air prison.
In 2008, international activists responded to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza by organizing what would become a series of land convoys and sea flotillas to deliver goods and draw the world's attention to the plight of Palestinians under the siege. After Israeli security forces boarded the Mavi Mamara in international waters and killed nine activists in summer 2010, restrictions were eased at both Rafah and Karem Abu Salem, and overall access to Rafah continued to improve after the Egyptian revolution in 2011 and with the election of President Morsi. However recent events in Egypt illustrate the fragility of these gains.
According to The New York Times during President Morsi's "rule, an average of 40,000 people crossed Rafah each month, up from about 28,000 per month and 15,000 per month in the two years prior." But since the coup that deposed President Morsi on 3rd July, the Israeli non-profit Gisha, a group that works to protect the freedom of movement of Palestinians, reports that traffic through Rafah has been cut by around 75 per cent, which means that movement is restricted more now than it was under the Mubarak regime. Gisha also reports that all tunnel activity was halted last Friday, which means no goods were able to cross into Gaza until the partial reopening of Rafah earlier this week. As a result, "diesel fuel and gasoline were in short supply," with "long lines reported at gas stations throughout" Gaza.
The precarious situation in Egypt should serve to refocus our attention on ending the occupation in Gaza and all of Palestine, rather than trying to manage it, and an international project called Gaza's Ark hopes to do just that. The idea is simple: Gaza's Ark purchased a vessel that is being refurbished by Palestinian workers in the port of Gaza, and when it is ready it will then be used to export Palestinian made goods from the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip with the help of the international community, thus challenging "the blockade from the inside out."
Although the project is being organized by many of the same international activists who participated in the attempts to break the siege on Gaza by sea, the inspiration for Gaza's Ark came from Palestinians. A special report by MEMO recently described how Palestinians in Gaza pray and wish to have their own seaport, and Gaza's Ark stems from this desire. Ehab Lotayef, an activist involved in the project, points out that Gaza's Ark is different than previous solidarity efforts because it allows Palestinians to be in control of breaking the siege themselves, thus focusing more attention on how Israel's occupation is denying them their freedom of movement – and not only in Gaza, but also in the West Bank and Jerusalem.
According to activist David Heap, the aims here are varied: to create employment opportunities for Palestinians; to increase the export of Palestinian goods; to reconnect the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip through trade; to foster connections between international publics and the Palestinian people; and to raise awareness about not only the siege on Gaza, but also the occupation of all of Palestine. These goals support the overall political message of the project: Palestinians are being denied their basic human right to freedom of movement.
Heap and Lotayef stress that Gaza's Ark is hoping to turn the conversation away from humanitarian responses and instead to direct it towards commercial rights, because Palestinians do not want to depend on aid; they want their own economy. However building the economy is not possible unless Palestinians first have the freedom of movement – and in all of the occupied territories. So, in a sense, Gaza's Ark is a modest attempt to move away from a model that is seeking to manage the crisis, to one that is laying the groundwork for changing it.
Nevertheless, it will not be an easy journey. This is a pioneer project, which means that everything is new and requires constant negotiation. And beyond the expected complexities of working across regions and cultures, Heap and Lotayef admit that the coup in Egypt has also created new problems. With the closure of Rafah prices have suddenly risen, supplies are more limited, and neither Palestinians nor international activists can enter or leave Gaza. But perhaps most importantly, the psychological impact on Palestinians has been harsh. Although Gaza's Ark was initially intending to sail this autumn, they now hope to embark in spring 2014.
And, of course, if and when Gaza's Ark is ready to sail, the activists know that Israel will likely try to stop it. And even if Israeli security forces do allow Gaza's Ark to break the siege by leaving Gaza's shores, Israelis will still try to pressure international port masters to prevent the vessel from landing. But according to Heap, this is where civil society can play a role by lobbying governments to allow Gaza's Ark to deliver goods that are protected under current trade agreements with the occupied territories.
So far, supporters of Gaza's Ark have come from a diversity of places, but most have been based in Australia, Europe, North America and South Africa. However it is extremely important for those in neighbouring countries to become involved in the project as well, because this helps to spread the political leverage that is needed to ensure that the voyage succeeds. International support helps frame this not only as a rights issue, but also as a trade issue by focusing on everybody's freedom to trade.
There are numerous ways to help Gaza's Ark realize its mission. Activists and people of conscience around the world can donate money and do outreach, coops and associations can place orders, and artists and writers can write open letters in support of the project, for example the recent appeals by renowned intellectual Noam Chomsky and celebrated writer Alice Walker.
Aldous Huxley, another respected writer, once observed that, "Consciousness is only possible through change; change is only possible through movement." However Israel has maintained its illegal occupation of Palestine through reversing the order: if movement is controlled, then nothing will change, and nobody on the outside will ever know the difference. But the Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem are all painfully aware, and Gaza's Ark is one of the vehicles they are using to demand to the world that movement be returned to Palestine.